Review: Olympic Opening Ceremony - 27 July 2012

Performance: 27 July
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 1 August 2012

Forging the rings. Photo: Shimelle Laine

With over one billion people worldwide watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games it will be one of the most talked-about events of the year. Already tonnes of newsprint have been devoted to the spectacle, the political controversies and the mysteries. (Just who was that woman in red who marched around the track with the Indian flag bearer?) Amongst all this commentary and opinion, we tend to forget that the single purpose of the ceremony is to welcome the athletes of the world to their host Olympic city but over successive Olympiads the basic point of this exercise has become an adjunct to a giant advertisement for the host nation. And this was very much the message in the Isles of Wonder spectacular from Danny Boyle, the man entrusted to put on the show; and the Prime Minister David Cameron, who personally decided to give him more money to do the job properly.

I confess to having a prior history with Olympic Opening Ceremonies. I “marched”, as they say, in the Ceremonies of 1992, 2004 and 2008 as a member of Team GB: first as captain of the Men’s Sabre team and latterly as the Team manager for fencing. Ironically, given that the purpose of the event is to welcome the athletes, those marching in the Opening Ceremony get to see precious little of it, since the logistics of getting 12,000 people arranged in order to march around the track means these athletes and officials hanging around outside for hours, awaiting their turn. So, it was a pleasure this time to sit comfortably at home and see it all on TV even if there was still just a little bit of me that hankered for the marching!

Liberally scattered amongst the snippets of sport, literature and history there were several illustrations of British dance, from the Maypole to Grime (a development of UK Garage and hip hop that emerged from East London in the early 2000s). A group of men dressed as Victorian Engineers – complete with their toppers – performed purposeful, industrious choreography [by Movement Director Toby Sedgewick] to Dame Evelyn Glennie and her hundred drummers, as 2,500 people represented the Industrial Revolution clearing away rural England in a powerful transformative scene entitled Pandemonium. The forging of the five Olympic rings, manufactured from within this teeming, throbbing mass was described by commentator Hazel Irvine as “an image that will live with us forever”. Apparently aided by the authentic smell of cordite, it must have been a truly spectacular experience for all of those inside the stadium itself and it still forged a powerful image on the smaller scale of our TV screens. It must be a strong contender for the most dynamic opening ever seen in an Olympic Ceremony.

After James Bond whisks HM The Queen away to “parachute” into the stadium from a Team GB helicopter, we moved into the Tubular Bells sequence that led to a representation of children’s literature (including a roller-skating Childsnatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a flight of umbrella-wielding Mary Poppins ), linked to the National Health Service. The key association between these two elements was J M Barrie’s legacy of royalties from Peter Pan that have supported Great Ormond Street Hospital: a fact neatly omitted in most political commentaries on this bouncy, jiving skit on the NHS, choreographed by Temujin Gill and Sunanda Biswas. It was a nicely paced middle section although some of the dancing featured in close-up on our TV screens, as performed by volunteer nurses, was unsurprisingly amateurish: a forgivable indulgence that added to the romance of the event.

The section that must have worked the least in the stadium, because by its very nature it suited the TV screens more, was the long sequence to represent the growth of the digital age. We were taken on a journey from radio and television through computer games, social media and text messaging into a concluding homage to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the World Wide Web. All of this played out against a modern day teenage romance [with choreography by Kenrick Sandy] and the “greatest hits” of forty years of British pop music, beginning with the Jam and The Who, through ‘My Boy Lollipop’ Millie and onto Mud, David Bowie, Queen, the Sex Pistols, New Order, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Eurhythmics at which point the whole stadium was lit as if it were a giant graphic equaliser. There were pogo dancing monsters jumping to The Prodigy’s I’m a Firestarter and an extract from the soundtrack of Boyle’s Trainspotting. The session came to an end with a kiss between the two young lovers [Henrique Costa and Jasmine Breinburg] shown against a montage of famous screen kisses; West Ham United’s signature tune I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles; more music from a Boyle film (Slumdog Millionaire); a live song from Dizzee Rascal; and the late Amy Winehouse singing Valerie with said couple dancing in a Garage loft space. Again, the cast of hundreds in this ensemble dancing would have benefitted from containing more trained dancers and perhaps it might have been a good and appropriate idea to draw volunteers specifically from vocational dance schools. I thought that this whole section – dubbed by Irvine as “the soundtrack to all our lives” – was the least coherent part of the whole event.

Mainstream contemporary dance choreographed and performed by a major dance icon, Akram Khan, was to feature prominently as the key transformational bridge between the “showcase” and the parade of athletes. Performed to the sorrowful tune of Abide With Me (the favourite hymn of generations of Brits through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries), which was sung a cappella by Emele Sandé immediately after an emotional interlude showing photos of departed family members in a digital memorial wall. Khan gave us a lyrical text touching on these issues of mortality (Abide With Me is a favourite hymn for funerals) in a work that has been interpreted by some as having been influenced by the terrorist attacks on the day following the award of the Games in 2005 (although there has not been any official acknowledgement of this association the memorial wall included photos of victims). It was danced initially by a tight formation of fifty performers, showing us how spectacular a group of professional dancers can look moving slickly and in close harmony. The TV cameras regularly focused on the singer so that we could not always see the dance but the rippling, undulating flow of bodies and fast arm rotations and pirouettes by Khan himself – dancing with a young boy – were impressive. It was particularly special that Boyle and Khan created this oasis of calm reflection leading directly into the parade of athletes. It was much less impressive that the massive American broadcaster NBC decided to axe this segment from its coverage of the Ceremony, replacing it with an interview of US swimmer Michael Phelps. Khan told a press conference after the event that he was “disheartened and disappointed” by the broadcast network’s decision. The omission of one of the most powerful images of the whole ceremony was their loss.

The hour leading up to the parade of athletes (which itself overran, as always) was a powerful distillation of Danny Boyle’s personal vision of Britain, beginning with bee-keeping and a rural cricket match and ending with the son of Bangladeshi immigrants who has become one of Britain’s greatest dance exports. Boyle’s success was in making his vision seem like a pot pourri of all our memories of growing up in Britain. Whatever our background and origins, anyone who has lived in the UK over the past few decades will have recognised much of it. Whatever is to become of the 2012 Games in Olympic folklore, the Opening Ceremony must be seen as Britain’s second” Gold Medal” of the Games (the first being awarded to those who built these amazing facilities on time). Arise, Sir Danny (and maybe Sir Akram, too).

Photos by Shimelle Laine on Flckr

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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